August 19, 2016

Fine Dining Goes Sky High at Searcys, the Gherkin

             After my university’s graduation ceremony, my parents whisked me away to a restaurant that they, unbeknownst to me, had booked. It was only when we turned a corner and I saw the skyscraper formally known as 30 St. Mary Axe looming over us that I twigged: “Are we going to eat at the Gherkin?!” Literally and figuratively high in the sky, we dined at Searcys, situated on the 39th floor.

             The Gherkin, designed by Lord Norman Foster, has become an iconic part of London’s skyline since it opened in 2004. It stands at 180 meters tall, which gives high tea a whole new altitude of meaning. Chef Barry Tonks and his team concoct seasonal menus at Searcys to serve European dishes presented so beautifully that they momentarily detract your attention away from the unparalleled views of London.

Lamb rump / parsley / girolle mushroom / peas / wilted lettuce with a side of potato gratin
Beef fillet / braised shin / grelot onions / carrots / garlic cream

Vegetable risotto
Chocolate moelleux / almond milk sorbet

Eton mess
Tea and chocolate truffles 
             We were lucky enough to receive window seats, but these unfortunately can’t be booked in advance. Rather, they are offered on a first come, first serve basis. The restaurant seats 70 people, which makes the gastronomic experience a pleasant and exclusive one, as opposed to a crowded and raucous one (as is often the scene at up-and-coming venues). It’s less snap-happy tourists pressed against the glass and more business professionals grabbing lunch and a few drinks. The City workers must hardly bat an eye at the landscape anymore, but I find that for me, even after four years of living in London, it still hasn’t lost its shine.

             The highest floor is the 40th, where the Sky Bar is encased by the Gherkin’s dome glass roof. The hatched exterior of the building streams in light for a breathtaking 360-degree, panoramic view of London – to be enjoyed with champagne, wine, or a cocktail in hand, of course.

             Searcys restaurant and the Sky Bar are typically reserved for tenants and members of the Gherkin. However, open nights for the public and pop-up and ticketed events are held throughout the year, while the space can also be hired for special occasions.

             This is especially good news for us at the moment, because the Gherkin’s 40th floor is a Summer Sky Riviera that anyone can visit until September 2nd. The restaurant is serving a Provençal menu and the bar has teamed up with Tanqueray No. TEN for a conversion involving olive trees, lavender plants, sun loungers, a French market area and “pool,” and lots of gin.

             For availabilities, prices, and to find out more about what’s on at the Gherkin, including a partnership with Laurent-Perrier Champagne in October and an opportunity to throw the best Christmas party ever (if you’re thinking that far ahead already), visit the Gherkin's website here. For bookings, email or phone 020 7071 5025.

August 12, 2016

The Battle of Boat Makes for a Smooth Sailing Musical at Kingston's Rose Theatre

Friends Frances (Anastasia Martin, far left), Gladys (Lily Caines), Sybil (Sabella Attenburrow), Florence (Marika Karatepeli), and Jack (Ashley MacLauchlan) receive a letter from William (Jonty Peach, far right), who is serving during World War I, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             The Battle of Boat made its premiere at the Rose Theatre in Kingston last night. This original musical written by composer Ethan Lewis Maltby and lyricist Jenna Donnelly is set in Britain during 1916, in the midst of World War I. Coinciding with the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, it explores the way that a group of children make sense of war and how they contribute to the effort in their own, creative, way. In association with the National Youth Music Theatre, the production sets sail on a heartwarming journey, all told through a cast ranging from ages 11 to 19.

             As an Army brat myself (albeit of the American branch), with a father who has been deployed several times, The Battle of Boat takes on a particular significance for me. It is executed with a lucid truthfulness and earnest delivery, with songs that encapsulate that feeling of being helpless (a name given to one of the songs), confused, and frightened in the event of a deployed parent. Regardless of the war or the time period it takes place in, the emotions remain the same. When I was a teenager in high school, I joined a program called Deployment Buddies, where I would visit the nearby elementary school once a month. As “bigs” we interacted with the “littles,” who had one or both parents deployed, to sing songs, share snacks, and create crafts. It wasn’t too dissimilar to the coping skills of the children in the show.

Beagle (left, Luca Panetta), William, and Jack play in the woods, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             Florence (Marika Karatepeli) draws a picture for her father, who is off fighting at war, and all she wants is to show it to him. Beagle (Luca Panetta) makes a miniature zeppelin in the hopes that the group of friends can fly to reach William (Jonty Peach) in France, but it goes down (quite literally) like a lead balloon. William is the only one accepted by the Army after they swaddle themselves in oversized clothes and lie about their ages at the enlistment office. They take on their biggest project yet when they decide to build a boat, which Beagle brands unambiguously as “Boat.” To me, this perfectly illustrates the sweet simplicity of children and how their minds work. Unlimited by the constraints that adults place on their own imaginations, children truly believe anything is possible, no matter how farfetched or nonsensical an idea might seem. A group of bullies threatens to overturn the group’s secret, but they won’t go down without a fight on the home front while William is fighting abroad. Hence, The Battle of Boat ensues, with a victorious end for our young defenders.

             The fact that their boat voyage is unsuccessful in making it to France doesn’t really matter, because word reaches William and the rest of the soldiers and it boosts their morale considerably. When my father was deployed in Iraq, my mother would send him care packages, often with home comforts wrapped in lush green grass wrapping paper – a type of vegetation he certainly wasn’t getting in his arid landscape. Sometimes, it is the simplest of gestures that can provide hope during the most difficult of times. In one of William’s letters to his friends, he explains that “little annoyances that used to matter don’t anymore.”

Jimmy Biggs (Bill Stanley, center) attempts to fight off Gripper (Haroun Al Jeddal, far right) and his gang, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             Watching Darragh O’Leary’s synchronized choreography is made all the more impressive due to the sizeable cast (almost 30 members), of which there is demonstrable talent. Haroun Al Jeddal as Gripper, the bullies’ gang leader, Bill Stanley as Jimmy Biggs, Anastasia Martin as Frances, William’s sister, and Jacob Edwards as Felix, along with the aforementioned names and the rest of the cast, are clearly all stars in the making. Everyone carries the musical beautifully. The set is scattered with toys, traps, and glowing trees. A billowing blue piece of fabric acts as the ocean’s waves and a metal sheet imitates the sound of thunder. The children’s dynamism and energy is what makes all of these elements come to life.

             The Battle of Boat would be a great introduction to musical theatre for children, while also making war a digestible topic for them. I was worried whether the Grim Reaper, scythe in hand, would rear his ugly head. Luckily, the show manages to skirt around the topic of death, but it is still broached when a furry member of the crew meets an unfortunate end. The song “Funeral For a Friend” could easily be about a person, which makes it all the more heart-rending. However, for each somber moment, there is an equally humorous one (mainly in the form of Beagle’s antics) and it elicits a sigh of relief from the crowd.

The Battle of Boat takes place on the home front, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             Sitting in the theatre, there will have been individuals touched by war, ones who haven’t, and those who have served on the frontline. Regardless of which category you fall into, The Battle of Boat is a musical that the whole family can enjoy and reflect on in different capacities. An elderly gentleman to my left occasionally wiped away tears during the arresting score, while I caught children mimicking moves from the show and singing the catchy and highly inventive lyrics after the show. Surely that’s the highest praise that Maltby and Donnelly, and indeed any writers, could receive. It’s not often that a production can touch an audience cross-generationally, but they’ve pulled it off with smooth sailing.

             The Battle of Boat is showing at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until August 13th for its three-day run. To make sure you don’t miss out, book your tickets hereListen to exclusive tracks from the musical here.

August 07, 2016

Exposure the Musical – Life Through a Lens Is One for the Instagram Generation

"Shut up and shoot me," Pandora (Niamh Perry) says to Jimmy (David Albury), photo courtesy of Pamela Raith
             At the beginning of July, I wrote about visiting the cast of Exposure The Musical – Life Through A Lens during their rehearsals. It made me all the more eager to see the show come to fruition, especially after learning about its back-story and hearing from the creative team. For a recap of what happened, read my post here, where you’ll also find a general synopsis of the musical.

             As I entered the St. James Theatre, where there is not a bad seat in its steep setup, I experienced the uncanny feeling that I was being watched. An unwavering eye stared out at the audience, blinking only sporadically. We were exposed as the subjects of an unknown photographer, with camera shutters clicking all around us. Then suddenly, a surge of images commanded the screens on stage to an echoing chorus of “live life, love life” that increased in urgency with each newly revealed photograph. They have all been sourced from the vast archive that is Getty Images. The stock photo agency was a supporter of the production from the very beginning and its library of photographs makes up the majority of Exposure’s “set.”

Jimmy with his two loves: Tara (Natalie Anderson) and his camera, photo courtesy of Pamela Raith
             The songs are a medley of gospel, soul, and rock, all delivered by an ultra talented cast. When David Albury (protagonist Jimmy Tucker) sings with Kurt Kansley (Jimmy’s deceased father) in “Father’s Lament,” the result is goose bump-inducing. Niamh Perry’s (Jimmy’s childhood friend Pandora, who becomes a famous singer) rendition of “My Last Goodbye” is heartbreakingly beautiful and places her incredible vocal range front and center. Natalie Anderson is instantly likeable as the warm and engaging Tara, who becomes Jimmy’s love interest. Michael Greco is stellar in his role as Miles Mason, a PR mogul who just happens to moonlight as the devil. Manny Tsakanika (dance captain), along with the rest of the ensemble, is a delight to watch dancing to Lindon Barr’s fluid and effortless choreography.

             Exposure is a musical for the Instagram generation, a generation that is so accustomed to a constant influx of images and visual stimuli. The material is energetic and relatable, but it also serves as a warning to our faltering attention spans. It’s a wonder that the two girls in front of me managed to stay off their phones during the duration of the show. As soon as the intermission rolled around, they were off chasing elusive Pokémon once again and scrolling through pictures of cats (I kid you not). What there needs to be is a conversation, a meeting of minds and ideas, and that is what Exposure is giving us. It’s opening up a discussion about good and evil, right and wrong, true and false. A photograph used to be pure; the camera never lies. Except, now the camera, or Photoshop and Instagram for that matter, can tell monstrous, ferocious lies and sometimes we don’t even know it.   

Snap it! (ensemble from left: Kurt Kansley, Andy Barke, Jahrel Thomas, Manny Tsakanika, and Zeph Gould), photo courtesy of Pamela Raith
             Photographer Jimmy wrestles with these moral dilemmas. His subject matter is typically worn-out people from war-torn countries. While these kinds of images are horrific, it raises the question of whether we have become desensitized to suffering. Will it take more and more extreme scenes to shock us? Jimmy’s own father died after taking a photo that he knew he wasn’t supposed to take of a rainmaker hiding his face from the soul-stealing camera. Clearly it stirred up some bad juju and Jimmy goes on to snatch a secret photo of Tara when she’s asked him not to. Miles takes his chance to burst onto the scene. He showers Jimmy with presents: the same type of camera his father used and an aptly named Diavel Ducati.

             Thus, we have arrived at the main premise of the musical and it’s a very good one at that: the seven deadly sins. Above the London skyline, way up in the Eye, Jimmy sells his soul to the devil. Jimmy initially writes off the notion of the seven deadly sins as a somewhat draconian concept. With all of the guile that one would expect from a horned demon, Miles merely laughs through his maniacal smile: “Sinning never goes out of fashion.” He’s right of course. Ensnared by Miles’ offer to photograph the seven deadly sins alive and kicking in London in 24 hours, Jimmy doesn’t quite realize how dangerous they truly can be until his mission hits a little too close to home. I would have liked there to be more emphasis on Jimmy trawling the city to find and capture the different sins. The rest of the musical builds up to this moment and the song “7even Deadly Sins” seems hurried and doesn’t do the crux of the plot justice. However, Exposure’s script was originally about three times the length of the current one, so understandably something had to give.

The green-eyed monster, envy (Kurt Kansley as Jimmy's father), comes out to play in the devil's (Michael Greco as Miles Mason) lair, photo courtesy of Pamela Raith
             I can only imagine how writer Mike Dyer must be feeling after 12 years working on the project, one that he developed after a fatal motorbike accident and the death of his father – themes that we have seen emerge within the musical. Since its previews, he has been reworking elements of the production until he gets it just so. It is the same high standard that all of the cast uphold. During the stirring “Rainmaker” finale, their faces illuminate, each and every one of them glistening with eagerness and pride (in this case, it’s definitely not a sin). It’s the expression that someone has when they truly believe in what they’re doing and they’re scanning the room to see if we believe too. Well, I certainly left the evening as a believer and with several of the songs stuck in my head.

             Exposure The Musical – Life Through A Lens is playing at the St. James Theatre until August 27th. Snap up tickets here.